After nearly 100 years of campaigning in Bristol, Edward Colston’s statue was finally removed by the city’s younger generation during the Black Lives Matter uprising on Sunday 7th June 2020.
Countering Colston – a network of activists, artists and academics – has campaigned against the celebration of Colston since 2015 by leading research, petitions, protests and online activism. We’ve helped stimulate public debate and had some tangible successes; Colston’s Primary and St Mary Redcliffe Schools, Colston’s Hall and Colston Yard have removed their namesakes, changes were made to the ‘Commemoration’ Day ceremonies and a church has refused to host an annual celebration of Colston. Decades of calls to remove the statue have been willfully and continually ignored by Bristol City Council so we’re pleased our city’s younger generation took matters into their own hands and sent a powerful message to their elders and leaders about the relevance of the statue in our city.
The question we ask is why was Colston’s statue still in Bristol’s city centre? We would point to vested interests and the ongoing influence of Colston’s associates; The Merchant Venturers. The Society of Merchant Venturers is an elite business Guild and historic enslaving corporation that proudly holds Colston as it’s most ‘honourable’ member and still plays an active role in major institutions, charities and schools across Bristol. The Merchants have actively protected the Colston statue since it was erected in 1895 and Bristol City Council has followed their lead.
In the last 18 month, as a result of pressure from campaigners, the council attempted to add a second plaque to the statue to better ‘contextualise’ Colston. A historian consultant was hired to write a plaque but the wording could not be agreed as the Merchants intervened and attempted to remove key historical facts from the text. This is an example of the inaction that has surrounded Colston’s statue for many years.
Countering Colston campaigner Mark Steed said: “The reason protestors had to take action into their own hands is the city’s politicians seem to be afraid of their own shadows. I’ve contacted all of Bristol’s MPs about a meaningful memorial or ‘slavery’ museum and I barely got a response. The silence from the majority has been deafening.”
Given this historical and cultural context, we believe it’s no coincidence that Bristol has some of the worst institutional racism in the UK. Statistical analysis and research by Runnymeade Trust confirms that people with Global South Heritage are very poorly served by Bristol’s education system and economy, resulting in some of the worst employment inequalities and educational outcomes in the UK. Gentrification is also sweeping the city with white Londoners move enmasse to Bristol, often buying houses in areas like St Pauls and Easton, which is pushing people with Global South Heritage out of their communities by making housing unaffordable.
The toppling of Colston has extra meaning within the context of the Black Lives Matter uprisings as the racism that’s prevalent in the US today has its origins in the UK.
Countering Colston campaigner Ros Martin said: “Black Lives Matter demonstrators are claiming their own power as a collective and wish to shape their own futures. This is a critical time as we reflect in lockdown what the brutal killing of George Floyd means for black lives, our collective humanity and justice. I have known about many premature deaths and injustices against black people in Bristol and it’s been unclear what agencies have learnt from these tragedies. Justice has not been served. I feel each should be a reckoning.”
Countering Colston campaigner Cleo Lake said: “Liberation must come at speed. Demonstrators removing Colston’s statue reminded me of the suffragettes – we can not wait for social reform and action to be granted or sign off by administrations, it must be taken by the collective will of the people. I would urge other cities in the UK and abroad to remove their statues that symbolize global white supremacy and oppression, if indeed they truly do believe like they say they do, that BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
Finally, we would like to dedicate our continued anti-Colston activism to our West African ancestors who were abused and murdered by Colston’s regime and to those in our wider network who have been violently attacked, injured or killed because of institutional racism in Bristol:
- Marlon Thomas – 1994
- Vernon Hawthorne – 2004 – KILLED
- Ripton Lindsay – 2009
- Bijan Ebrahimi – 2013 – KILLED
- David McCleod – 2014
- Kamil Ahmad – 2016 – KILLED
- Ras Judah – 2017
Photo credit: Shawn-Naphtali Sobers
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Who was Edward Colston?
Colston was a Bristolian who was a major investor, manager and deputy governor of the Royal African Company (RAC) between (1680-1692). In those years he was responsible for the kidnapping and transporting 84,500 enslaved Africans, with 23% dying before reaching shore (19,300). This included women and children as young as six – each enslaved person was branded with the company’s initials on their chest. To maximise profit, the ship’s hulls were divided into holds with little headroom, so they could transport as many enslaved people as possible. The unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery and scurvy killed nearly 20,000 enslaved Africans during the crossings. Their bodies were thrown overboard. 12,209 of the captives were children of 10 years or below. 1 in 4 children died en route.